MANSFIELD -- Discussions about water -- the stuff kids like to play in and the same stuff adults have to pay for -- were key topics for discussion Wednesday night at Mansfield City Council.
Local lawmakers, while approving a contract to operate the city's only public pool this summer and accepting a donation for two new splash pads in two other parks, also took a deep dive into water and sewer finances.
The discussion occurred during a hybrid in-person/online session. Six of nine council members were in attendance while three participated remotely, as did all members of the city administration.
Council met a day later than normal due to Tuesday's primary election.
City Council finance committee chair Jon Van Harlingen, who represents the 3rd Ward, led a discussion that began two weeks ago when Joe and Reba Matern, owners of Matern Metal Works, Inc., asked when the city plans to move forward with the Touby Run Flood Mitigation Hazard Project.
The $15.5 million dry dam project is aimed at protecting homes and businesses in the city's north end flood plain, which officials have also said is key to also spurring economic development.
The 903-foot-long dry dam was proposed to be built just west of North Lake Park and would have a capacity of 135 million gallons. Officials said it would prohibit flooding except during the "100-year" rain events.
The city administration proposed the project in 2018 after several years of study. Properties and easements were acquired for the project and engineering for the work was done.
The program was ultimately was put on hold in March 2019 until anticipated revenue from the $17 million water meter program, being funded by a bond, was realized. The replacement program was expected to be completed in 2020, but the ongoing installation program has been slowed, primarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Van Harlingen, using a chart, said the city has taken on an additional $50.6 million in water and sewer fund bond debt in recent years, including $10 million for state-mandated improvements at the wastewater treatment plant and $35 million for state-mandated improvements at the water treatment plant.
He said before bonds were approved for the projects, the city's bond debt for water and sewer was $6.4 million. Van Harlingen said that debt, as of this week, was at $57.1 million.
"I don't regret these expenditures. These are all EPA driven. It's extremely responsible and we are responsible for our citizens to supply a good supply of water, safe and sanitary, and what's left over, we have to take care of that, too," Van Harlingen said. "This is all EPA driven."
The delay in the still ongoing citywide water meter replacement program, which was aimed at generating additional revenue by more accurately counting water usage, has meant a delay in the expected revenue.
Van Harlingen said the water and sewer revenue was a combined 14.4 percent below budget in 2020. In the first three months of 2021, he said, the city should have received 25 percent of its revenue for the year.
The sewer revenue was on track, he said, but only 17.3 percent of the water revenue flowed into the city's coffers.
"Keep in mind sewer rates went up another 3 percent this year. It's already built in. The (2021) water rate (increases) are just now coming into effect.
"In my opinion, we have not had two solid years yet in these water funds to see how these new water meters are going to pan out," he said.
Mayor Tim Theaker and Public Works Director David Remy said the pandemic has directly impacted the water meter installation effort.
"The coronavirus we encountered is what has put our community at a different pace than other communities (in the past). (COVID-19) has changed the norm and that's where we have encountered a little bit of a problem," Theaker said.
Remy said the city has followed the advice and guidance from Suez, the contractor in charge of the project, in terms of trying to finish installing almost 19,000 new water meters.
He said the city hopes to have the work completed by July 1, but that is dependent on residents' willingness to make appointments and allow the installers to enter their homes.
"COVID hit us when we were about to start installations and it delayed the entire process by almost a year," Remy said. "We have worked extremely diligently with those who have COVID concerns to push their appointments to the end of the process when things are freeing up and more open and people might feel more comfortable.
"COVID has really thrown us a curve ball and thrown Suez a curve ball on getting the project completed," Remy said.
Van Harlingen said he would likely schedule a public utilities committee meeting to continue discussions about the dry dam project after several council members said it's an issue that should be brought back to the table for consideration.
6th Ward representative Kimberly Moton was one of the council members concerned about the flooding issue.
"I have grown up in the area all my life, for the most part. To see what happens during the floods, it's just terrible," Moton said. "I would like for us to keep that in mind. Economically, I don't want to see any businesses have to relocate or to move."
Also on Wednesday, City Council:
-- approved a $35,587 contract with the Mansfield Area Y to operate the pool at Liberty Park this summer.
-- voted to accept a $168,000 Richland County Foundation grant to install and maintain new splash pads at Johns Park and North Lake Park. 4th Ward Council member Alomar Davenport thanked Parks & Recreation manager Mark Abrams and RCF for combining to make the splashpad project happen on the north end. "I think the kids on the north end, and all over the City of Mansfield, will enjoy the splashpads," Davenport said.
-- approved demolitions of unsafe structures at 53 Florence Ave., 236 Gerke Ave. and 1092 Pawnee Ave.
-- approved paying Pioneer Technology $32,296.22 for the Mansfield Municipal Court Clerk of Courts office for a software maintenance agreement. It's also expected to discuss appropriating $50,000 from the unappropriated court computerization fund and $50,000 from the unappropriated court costs fund for a change in mail delivery service. None of the expenses come from the city's general fund.
-- accepted a $500 donation from the Remy-McCullough Family Trust to be used for Safety Town.
-- accepted a $60,000 grant from the Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services to be used for a portion of the cost for a family violence liaison officer.
-- accepted a $51,300 grant from the U.S. Dept. of Justice to offset costs incurred by the Mansfield Police Department for costs associated with COVID-19.
-- approved the one-year renewal of a software maintenance agreement for $77,791.31 with the Tyler Technologies Corp.
-- accepted a $4,800 grant from the Richland County Foundation to hire an intern in the Community Development Department.
-- authorize the safety-service director to trade in old police department armory items to offset the cost of patrol rifles.
-- approved purchase of a Versalift 47-foot aerial unit on a Dodge 5500 chassis cab at a price not to exceed $171,575. The bucket truck, primarily used by the city's signs and signals department, will replace older, outdated models, Remy said.
-- approved a change to city ordinances that will allow veterinary services to occur in areas zoned "office service district." The change will allow Phillips Animal Hospital, a longtime practice at 581 S. Main St., to move into a larger facility at 371 Cline Ave. The change will not allow overnight kenneling of animals not in need of medical care.
Dr. Jordan Phillips, whose practice is the key provider for the Richland County Humane Society and Richland County Dog Warden, addressed council and said the change will allow for the "quiet part of veterinary care while excluding the noisy part." The Cline Avenue address is the former home of an Akron Children's Hospital facility.
-- heard a letter from Carolyn Dollisch, 1426 Harding Ave., who expressed frustration about she said were the ongoing zoning violations by a business in her area. Cheryl Meier, chair of council's zoning committee, said the issue would be addressed during a future committee meeting.